Category Archives: sydney morning herald

halloween in auschwitz

A version of this story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 22, 2011.

I was in Krakow as the city was celebrating its independence. It was a fresh winter morning and its sumptuous main square was bathed in sunlight. An ageing soldier with a walrus moustache and a great coat decorated in brass marched at the head of a brigade of veterans. Crossing a small portion of the vast Rynek Glowny (it is the largest medieval square in Europe), the veterans narrowly avoided a florid sick stain on the flagstones that threatened to put an end to the dignity of the moment.

halloween in auschwitz

When the Poles kicked out their communist overlords, it was never going to be long before the rest of the world beat a path to Krakow. With its medieval ramparts that date back 700 years, it’s a fairytale city of grandiose castles, baroque churches and moderately-priced beer.

This last factor is less of a draw than in Prague, in the next-door Czech Republic. Nonetheless, a fair volume of Western men tip out of the budget airlines each weekend to drink themselves hoarse. Krakow’s status as a party city owes as much to its student population as anything else, though. Its historic Jagiellonian University is the most prestigious in Poland counting among its alumni the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus and the late pope John Paul II.

In the evening its present intake mill about in the streets that feed off Rynek Glowny and down vodka shots in the proliferation of bars there or in the cafes off Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter.

I suppose if you were being precious you might consider it a slur on the impeccable beauty of the place, all this hedonism. But that would be to forget the world the decadence replaced.

When Krakow emerged from the tatters of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in October 1918 (the event I saw memorialized in the town square) it became part of an independent Poland for the first time in over a century. This independence lasted just two decades until the Nazis arrived. After a reign of terror that included the wholesale murder of the city’s Jews, they gave way to the Russians, whose rule was just as unyielding though markedly less deranged. These days a degree of nostalgia for the more kitsch elements of the communist-era is reflected in hostel names like “Goodbye Lenin” and tours of the suburbs and old steel works in a restored Trabant.

No such playfulness can be brought to bear on the German occupation, however. An hour’s drive west of Krakow is the town of Oswiecim. Better known by the Germanic version of its name, it was scene of the biggest act of mass murder ever known. Walking around the death camp of Auschwitz, the most striking thing is the ordinariness of the place. The redbrick prison blocks look like warehouses, the chimneystack above the gas chamber is neat and unassuming.

A second, much larger camp was built a few miles away. Known as Auschwitz-Birkenau it accommodated 200,000 inmates in wooden blocks that resembled stables.

More than a million Jews, Gypsies and Poles were tortured and killed at Birkenau. New arrivals were herded from the wagons and made to form a queue before an SS doctor who looked them over before ushering them to the left or straight on. Left took them into the camp but majority – around three quarters, our guide said – were directed ahead to the four purpose-built gas chambers.

Standing by these same rail lines facing the ruins of the gas chambers I asked our guide Beata if she found it hard to retrace such disturbing material each day.

“Most of the people who work here have some connection with the place,” she said. The first director of the museum was an inmate. So was Beata’s uncle, who was imprisoned here after he was caught by Gestapo officers on the streets of Krakow beyond a 10pm curfew.

A meek-voiced woman with dark patches below her eyes, Beata pointed out the block where he slept on straw mattresses two to a bed, and where he contracted Typhoid and nearly died. “Afterwards, he was one of those who preferred not to talk about his experience,” she said.

At the outbreak of war there were 65,000 Jews in Krakow. Today there are less than 200. This horrendous statistic is tempered a little by the stories of those who tried to help. A third of those recognised as “the Righteous Among Nations” by the Jewish faith were Poles. They include Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who ran a pharmacy in the Krakow ghetto from where he doled out medicine (often for free) to the severely malnourished residents.

Pankiewicz, who published a harrowing memoir of his experiences, is an easier character to admire than Oskar Schindler, whose status as a saviour is complicated by his collaboration with the Third Reich. A war profiteer who came to Poland to spy for the Nazis, Schindler took over an enamelware factory on the edge of the ghetto in the working class neighbourhood of Podgorze where he employed Jews because it was free labour. His workers lived in a camp connected to the factory in conditions of squalor, but it was paradise relative to what was going on outside.

The site of the factory has been turned into a museum that opened in June 2010. It tells the broader story of Krakow during the Nazi occupation as well as the history of Schindler’s Jews.

halloween in auschwitz

I went there a Friday afternoon. When I came out it was dark and I walked through Kazimierz, passing a smattering of Jewish restaurants playing klezmer. Outside of bars rosy-cheeked Polish girls handed out vouchers for cheap vodka.

At a restaurant back in the old town I ate a goulash that sat within a bowl of bread. I chugged back a few vodkas and moved on to a bar where the house band was stomping on some American rock standards. On the dance floor vampish blonds vogued beside bleary-eyed men wobbling unsteadily like bowling skittles.

I joined in for a few tracks but I couldn’t get into it. Back on the streets the ghosts of the past crowded in on me. The past intrudes on you here in that way that it must in places where true horror has existed. As I walked along I thought about Beata’s uncle, back in Krakow after the war. How often had he repassed the spot where they arrested him in the years that followed? Crossing the square under the town hall tower I passed the site of the morning parade. A drunk young Brit, his hair jelled flat like a set of railings, approached me. “Mate. You know any strip clubs?”

There was a restaurant called “Roasters”, I said, where they showed boxing on plasma TVs and the girls wore hot pants. This information didn’t seem to satisfy him and he squinted at me suspiciously. “Nice place Krakow ain’t it?” He said eventually.

“Lovely,” I said.

“Been to Auschwitz?”

“Yes.”

He squinted some more and shaking his head he said angrily: “Nazi bastards!” And the young man staggered off up the square, narrowly missing the atomic stain that still decorated the otherwise pristine flagstones.


on the trail of native america

A version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Sept 10, 2011.

On a groggy late summer’s day on Manhatten island I’m taking refuge in the marble-domed George Gustav Heye Center, near the start of Broadway, admiring two pieces of flint. Not just any pieces of flint. Dating from between 11,000 and 13,500 BC, these are among the earliest evidence of Paleoindian culture in any museum collection in the world. Each has been carved in fluted points a few centimetres long.
the mohawks helped build the empire state

To archaeologists, they are Clovis points. To the rest of us, they are easily recognisable as the lethal tips fashioned by early hunters before being fastened to wooden shafts to make spears. Aside from their antiquity, the really interesting thing about the spearheads is where they were found: just 320 kms north of here in Washington County, New York State.

So when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that later bore his name to claim New York on behalf of the Dutch East India Company in 1609, the natives who greeted him were part of a continuous occupation that had gone on for millennia.

Yet in less than 400 years they have almost completely disappeared.

Back in Hudson’s day, there were no such countries as Canada or the United States of America. Now I’m in north America’s largest city on my way to a native American festival across the border to learn more about the sad decline of such a proud culture.

I begin at the George Gustav Heye Center, opened in 1994 in the historic Alexander Hamilton US Custom House as the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian. The spearheads, like most of the collection, were gathered by George Gustav Heye himself, a New Yorker who quit Wall Street in the late 19th Century to indulge his passion for Indian artefacts.

Heye was one of the few men of his era interested in preserving the continent’s pre-Colombian past, amassing 800,000 pieces in his lifetime. He opened his first museum in 1922 in order, as he put it, to “unveil the mystery of the origin of the red man”. Yet despite his best efforts little material evidence of Manhattan’s native history has survived.
There is the name of course. Manhattan derives from the word Manna-hata written in the logbook of one of Henry Hudson’s officers and meaning “island of many hills” in the language of the Lenape Indians who lived there. There is also the route of Broadway, which follows an old Indian trail.

Ironically, the most striking example of Native American craftsmanship in the city in existence today are the skyscrapers. In the Twenties and Thirties Mohawk Indians were employed in the construction of some of New York’s most iconic landmarks, including the Empire State – sadly, because they worked for such low wages and reputedly had such good heads for heights. Like the Lenape, the Mohawks were native to New York State and a large proportion of them were driven inland or had their population decimated by disease in the wake of European colonisation.

Famously, the Lenape lost Manhattan in a treaty with the Dutch in 1626 in exchange for $26. What’s less well know is that the reason they gave away their homeland so cheaply was due mainly to their having no concept of land ownership. To the Lenape, you could no more own the land than you could the sky. And anyway, they believed the Europeans merely wished to share the island with them.

The Lenape were exiled to Oklahoma. But the majority of remaining Mohawks now live north of the border on reservations in Quebec where I am now heading to visit a Native American festival being held in Kahnawake Mohawk territory on the south shore of Canada’s mightiest river. One of the festival organisers tells me that Kahnawake means “place of the rapids” in the Mohawk’s native Iroquoian language.

We drive there on a grey afternoon, crossing over the pregnant waters of the St Lawrence and into the reservation. Battered clapboard houses, gas stations selling cliché Indian souvenirs and scores of smoke shacks line the roadside (tobacco is sold tax-free on the reserve).

The streets are deserted, the houses shut up and the only sign of life is a few scattered children playing on porches. My host Jean takes me to a café where an old photo of the town’s lacrosse team hangs on the wall. Lacrosse, like the smoking of tobacco, is one Native American tradition that caught on with the colonisers. We sit outside watching vast cargo ships slip by on the St Lawrence Seaway, the canal linking the Atlantic to the Great Lakes that runs through the reserve.
“The locals are wary of outsiders,” says Jean in hushed tones. “They prefer to be left to themselves.”

The Mohawks came here from the 16th century onwards. Since then they’ve been involved in a long resistance struggle that continues today. In 1990 the nearby Mohawk community of Kanesatake was involved in a land dispute with a local mayor that ended in a violent standoff and the death of one police officer.

A twenty-minute drive from the Mohawk communities, Montreal feels like another world. Established by French fur traders around the same time the Mohawks came to the region it has developed into Canada’s second city and the country’s cultural capital, with over 100 festivals taking place throughout the year. With a largely bilingual population speaking French and English, it is a friendly, cosmopolitan town that offers a nice melange of Gallic charm and North American practicality.

The city’s annual Just for Laughs comedy festival is finishing and a fashion festival is about to get under way, but I am here for the First Peoples Festival, a 10-day celebration that brings together indigenous artists, musicians and filmmakers from around the globe. Held in the city every year for the past two decades, the festival’s focal point is in the Place des Festivals where traditional teepees are assembled in front of the stage and where a ceremonial flame is lit the first night.

For the opening night the headline act on the main stage is Samian, a rapper from the Abitibiwinni First Nation in western Quebec. A star among the province’s indigenous community, his arrival on stage is greeted by screams from adoring fans and the words from the announcer: “A voice for aboriginal culture.”
He raps in French and in his native tongue, Algonquin, which he learned from his grandmother. “My language is dying out and it’s important I do what I can to save it,” he explains.
Elsewhere there are films, poetry readings and displays of traditional song and dancing.  “This is obviously not Just for Laughs,” says Andre Dudemaine, the chief organiser of the First Peoples event. “We have an agenda to create space for aboriginal artists. There are severe problems burdening our native communities. Unemployment and drugs are the two that come to mind. But there are reasons to be optimistic too, one of which is the festival. Ten years ago a platform like this could not have been imagined.”
We speak amid the gentle bustle of the Quartiers Des Spectacles, where most of the 100-plus festivals locate themselves. I wonder how he hoped to stand out in such a crowded marketplace.
“If you really want to know about the authentic culture of this land then this is the only event that offers that opportunity,” he says. “It is a chance to participate in a living history.”


of jazz, rock, rap and new york

It was a cold night in Harlem. The speakeasy was down some steps in the basement of a brownstone on West 133rd Street. We rang the bell and a small, neatly dressed black man with a gold pendant round his neck opened the door a fraction. “Is that you Gordon?”jazz

Our guide stepped out from the shadows and into the thin line of light escaping from the doorway. “I got some guys here itching for good jazz. Think you can help out?”

In the back the band had set up on a small stage: A dusty upright against the wall, the sleek contours of the sax reflected in a solitary spotlight.

“Billie Holiday played here when she was a teenager hustling for gigs,” Gordon said, as the heavyset Venezuelan on piano struck the chords of the first number. “She treaded these same floors.”

From the speakeasies of Harlem to the nightclubs of the Lower East Side and the street corners of the Bronx, New York is a city that lives and breathes music. Almost every genre of popular music has found a home here down the years and many of the greatest musicians of all time have, like Holiday, called the city home at one time or another: Bob Dylan started out in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village; Madonna began her ascent to pop heaven in a crummy apartment in the downtown, juggling playing in local bands with shifts at a donut store.

The city has also witnessed many seminal moments in pop history – the birth of hip hop in the Bronx; The Beatles’ first appearance on American television recorded at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway; the arrest of Sid Vicious for the murder of his girlfriend at the Chelsea Hotel.

Tapping this rich vein of history takes a few days and is best accomplished in the company of one of the handful of tours focused on the musical heritage. The tours are subdivided by genre and usually presided over by amiable obsessives who can give you chapter and verse on the relative merits of bebop or the significance of Joey Ramone’s favorite brand of soft drink (it was Yoo-Hoo in case you were wondering).

Gordon Polatnik runs tours in Harlem. A softly spoken 50-year-old, his mild manner masks a lifelong passion for the neighborhood’s jazz history. He ran a café here for five years mainly, he admits, “so that I could have live jazz on the menu every day.”

His tours reflect this concern with the contemporary scene and feature at least two live performances. In between he led us through Harlem, along streets filled with distinguished brick rowhouses that date back over a century and which first welcomed African Americans driven out of midtown Manhattan in the years before World War I. This migration brought with it dance halls and gambling dens that jumped to the erratic new sounds of jazz and ragtime.

In the roaring twenties prohibition drove the liquor underground into the speakeasies on 133rd Street, known then as Swing Street. The new law did not dent the party, however, and society figures and celebrities such as Mae West clamoured to the area and to renowned venues like the Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington’s orchestra were the house band.

These days the music venues are a little thinner on the ground although the Apollo Theater on 125th Street has been running a talent night every Wednesday for so long that it can boast that Billie Holiday got her big break there.

“The city is a proving ground,” said Gordon as we climbed back up to the street into the crisp air of the Harlem night. “Anyone can come here and get a gig. That’s the genius of New York.”

——–

Standing in front of the downtown tenement Bobby Pinn held up a vinyl copy of Led Zepellin’s Physical Graffiti. Overhead the sky was clear blue and though the sun cast a shadow on the artwork it was still possible to see that the building on the album cover and the one across the street on St Mark’s Place were one and the same.

“Now,” said Bobby, a fast-talking New Yorker with bleached blond spikes and an inexhaustible supply of rock and roll anecdotes. “Which of you is gonna tell me what’s missing on the Zep album?”

Our small band of rock geeks scratched heads in shamed silence as yellow cabs clattered by and skinny young things in black jeans weaved past on the sidewalk.

The tenement on the album has a level missing, Bobby said. Apparently this cosmetic change was ordered by the band after it was discovered that one of the group’s drug dealers lived in the building. “Taking away the dealer’s floor somehow made sense. There’s heroin logic for you!”

Bobby began his rock tour in the heart of the East Village, formerly the Lower East Side. A hundred years back large swathes of European migrants made the streets around here the most densely populated on the planet. In the post-war years this beat-up slum was a perfect haven for penniless artists. Bobby showed us the St Mark’s Hotel, a flop house frequented by Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, who nicknamed the eaterie on the ground floor “the respectable bums cafeteria.”

A hundred yards or so down Second Avenue he pointed out the site of the Fillmore East, a concert venue where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin vied for top billing alongside acts like The Who, who premiered their rock opera Tommy there. On the sidewalk a mosaic plastered onto the base of the traffic lights commemorates the venue, now a savings bank. The mosaic contains the names of bands that played the Fillmore as well as a shard of the guitar Pete Townsend smashed on stage during the Tommy show.

Today the Lower East Side is a sanitised version of its former self, replete with boutiques selling retro clothes and yoga centers (“What we’re rebelling about now is the influx of yoghurt,” said Bobby). But in the late seventies this area was awash with drugs and crime. Nor were these problems confined to the downtown. The city was bankrupt and a blackout in the summer of 1977 led to widespread looting.

Out of this chaos came creativity. The emerging music scenes of punk and new wave were at the vanguard of this creative surge. Homegrown bands like The Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie cut their teeth in venues like the legendary CBGB on The Bowery. The Ramones played their first gig there “in front of seven people and the bar dog.”

At the same time disaffected teenagers uptown seized on the chaos to forge a new musical form. JDL is part of the Coldcrush Brothers, a rap act from the Bronx formed in 1979. “Back then the city was in disarray,” JDL said. “Slum landlords were burning down apartment blocks to get the insurance money. These places had no amenities and were deserted. As kids we held parties in them that turned into jams, never guessing this thing we did for fun would turn into a multi-billion dollar industry.”

The former DJ now leads tourists around his old neighbourhood showing them significant markers in the story of hip hop, including the location of the first documented hip hop party on Sedgwick Avenue.

“The reason New York is such a force in music is the diversity,” JDL said. “The drive to make it here is phenomenal. So many people come here to see it, to live it. It’s what makes this the greatest city in the world.”

A version of this story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on May 21, 2011


fear and loathing: a homage

I’m somewhere near Barstow when the drugs start to kick in. I glance overhead but I can see no hordes of phantom bats swooping down in a hallucinatory fever. Instead, just a surge of caffeine from the last swig of Americano and a pleasant numbness from the aspirin for a headache that has been bothering me since we left Los Angeles.

OK, so I know technically you’re not supposed to drink liquids while driving but if you’re on the trail of Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, you have to live a little on the edge.

What the hell! I put the bottle to my lips and pop another aspirin.

Thompson, who died nearly four years ago, would no doubt have preferred a hit of Mace in the eyes than suffer the ignominy of anything as insipid as headache tablets. The maverick journalist, who mythologised his own drug use with hilarious effect in his most famous work, was a man of extremes. Even in the manner of his death.

In February 2005 he was found shot through the head (judged suicide at the time) at his ranch in Colorado; his ashes were blasted from a cannon as per his final wishes.

Accompanied by my friend – a lifestyle consultant from Papua New Guinea – I have decided to pay a visit to his final resting place in the foothills of the Rockies.

The pilgrimage starts on the freeway from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, as we retrace the journey that begins Fear And Loathing when Thompson’s alter ego, Raoul Duke, hallucinates a sky full of bats near the town of Barstow.

Getting out of LA has been intolerable. We’re backed up on the freeway waiting to be released from the endless spread of the city. When we finally break clear of traffic at dusk we’re sent on our way with a blood-red sunset blazing in the rear-view mirror of our rented white convertible.

Fear And Loathing is a fictionalised account of a real trip Thompson made to Vegas in the early 1970s accompanied by his Mexican lawyer, who morphs into the character of the drug-crazed Samoan attorney, Dr Gonzo. In the book, Gonzo and Duke embark on a shambolic quest to find the “American dream”.

By the time we hit the desert city it is after midnight. Vegas emerges out of the darkness, a neon oasis, its skyline dominated by the huge warehouse-like hotel casinos that line the Strip.

These days the American dream is looking rather frayed around the edges in Sin City. The economic downturn that has hit the rest of the country is having an effect here, too.

At our motel and at diners in the downtown, staff tell us their takings are down.

“This place would be full normally but folks can’t afford the gas to come out here,” says Valente, a Mexican waiter at Denny’s diner on Las Vegas Boulevard, gesturing to the rows of empty formica tables.

We stop at a cheap motel, the Econo Lodge on Las Vegas Boulevard. It has the dubious claim to fame that it played host to Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the Twin Towers attacks, on a wild weekend he spent with his co-conspirators in the months leading up to September 11, 2001.

Thompson described North Vegas as a “cheap shoddy limbo”, the kind of place, he wrote, “where you go if you need to score smack before midnight with no references”. Though the area still retains a definite air of seediness, it doesn’t feel in any way overtly dangerous. And the faded neon of its strip clubs and all-night marriage chapels give it an authentic character closer in spirit to the Vegas of Thompson’s book than the Strip, which for all its garish opulence is rather sterile.

From Vegas we drive nearly 1600 kilometres north-east through the desert of Nevada and Utah to Pitkin County, in the mountains of Colorado.

We stop for lunch at a Mexican taco restaurant in Green River, an old railroad town located in the parched wilderness of central Utah. It is eerily quiet, the main street just a few boarded-up stores, a garage and two restaurants. A beaten-up wooden shack near the freeway advertises “the best melons in America” for sale.

Pitkin County is where Thompson lived for most of his adult life in a ranch near Woody Creek, a sleepy hamlet a few kilometres down the valley from the ski resort of Aspen.

Thompson ran for sheriff in Pitkin County in 1970. Disillusioned with covering an election campaign that had brought Richard Nixon to power in 1968, he styled himself the “pro-hippie, anti-development” candidate, even shaving himself bald for a televised debate so he could refer to the opposition Republican candidate (who had a crew cut) as “my long-haired opponent”.

He ran on a ticket he dubbed “Freak Power”, saying he planned to mobilise the county’s hardcore hippies and oddballs. It was only a last-minute face-saving deal between Democrats and Republicans that denied him victory.

Aspen today is awash with ski money, filled with boutique stores and high-end restaurants. On the main drag is the office of the Aspen Times, where the father of Gonzo once took out a full-page ad promoting his run for office.

John Colson, a reporter of two decades for the Aspen Times, says that in spite of the writer’s best efforts to halt the developers, they won: “Money talks and bullshit walks. That’s the sad reality here,” he says.

To find the remnants of “Freak Power”, you must leave smart Aspen and head down the valley, past forested hills to Woody Creek.

At the Woody Creek Tavern, a favourite haunt of the writer, the walls are adorned with his memorabilia: a signed photo of the front cover of the 20th anniversary edition of Rolling Stone magazine showing him reclining on the back of a Harley and polaroids of him in his trademark aviator sunglasses.

In the bar, everyone who knew Thompson has a story to tell: neighbours recall the intermittent sound of gunfire from the ranch and a nurse recalling how he was kicked out of the local hospital despite breaking his arm because he insisted on keeping a crate of beer and drugs under his bed.

“He was a true original and a patriot,” says Steve, an old neighbour who lives a short distance from Owl Farm, Thompson’s ranch.

It’s dark when we leave and outside the air is misty cold around the street lamps. Into the lamplight a black flash of something appears for an instant. A bat. I pull my collar tight around my neck and brace myself for the worst.


route 66

As the warm afternoon draws to a close, I begin to wonder whether I will ever escape this desert town. Barstow, with its dusty line of strip shops along the route of the old Union Pacific railroad in south-east California, has a corroded kind of charm that you can bear when you know you’re leaving.


The locals aren’t too complimentary, either.

”In Barstow you get all the women together, you still won’t have a full set of teeth,” a guy tells me the night before at the Super J Truck Stop, a few kilometres out of town.

I had been at the truckstop in the early hours, shivering under neon, drinking burnt coffee as I waited for a ride south-east towards Mexico.

The truckers file past in silence, doing their best to ignore me as they head inside to fill up on apple pie and bad TV. For the most part big-bellied midwesterners, they are a sombre bunch. I give up in the early hours. After coaxing a lift into Barstow from a truck stop attendant, I drown my sorrows in an all-night bar.

Next morning I emerge from the bathroom of Denny’s diner feeling dazed and with a numb face after a quick wash with the hand sanitiser. At the city limits, I wait by the freeway, on the old Route 66. The Mother Road, as it is also known, Route 66 passes here on its 4000-kilometre journey from Chicago to Los Angeles. This fabled artery of 20th-century America became synonymous with the spirit of travel and adolescent adventure captured in books such as On the Road.

When I was young, I heard stories from my parents about how they had hitched around England in the ’60s. I wanted to share their enthusiasm but like so many others raised on road movies and the Beats, it was the American landscape that I associated with the romance of hitching.

With his canvas bag and pack of smokes the hero of On the Road, Sal Paradise, seemed the ultimate road warrior, a renegade dreamer who lived by the adage that the journey is more important than the destination.

Well past the age when you’re supposed to have abandoned such romantic notions, I make my first attempt at hitching in the US. I have flown into Las Vegas and some friends have dropped me at Barstow. From here I plan to travel via Arizona to the Mexican border.

At the end of the day, I’ve gone nowhere. Hours pass by the roadside. I begin to wonder whether I’ve made a stupid mistake. A couple of online forums I had found suggested travellers are still hitching. The best of them was Digihitch, which contained nuggets of advice including state bylaws as well as testimony from hitchers and rail-hoppers.

The drivers who whiz by are obviously not subscribers and as they speed into the distance, my resolve goes with them. I call to double-check the schedule for the Greyhound bus and I’m about to call it a day when I hear a voice behind me. I turn to see a young man in wraparound shades standing by a truck. He is going to Flagstaff, Arizona, he says. Do I need a ride?

His name is Brook and he is a biologist on his way home to his girlfriend and little boy. And as I watch the desert sweep to the mountains and the sun drop out of the sky, the conversation shifts to the dramatic changes fatherhood has brought to his life.

There are few relationships like that between driver and hitcher, thrown together by chance for a few hours and probably never to meet again. The car becomes their confessional.

A veteran hitcher of five decades who publishes stories on Digihitch, Rex Ingram, believes the chance to positively affect someone’s life, either with your words or by simply lending an impartial ear, is one of the best reasons to hitch.

Ingram, who has hitchhiked through all the US states, writes that the intimacy provided by the automobile is conducive to conducting behavioural therapy on a level only attainable by a psychiatrist.

”I’ve been told of murders and robberies, loves and hates, emotional disturbances of every type,” he says.

Flagstaff is a pleasant college town near the rim of the Grand Canyon. We arrive in a blizzard and Brook drops me at a hostel. After a few days, I look online for a ride further south – it’s now possible to thumb a lift from the comfort of your dorm bed. Social-networking sites such as Craigslist contain sections where you can post notices offering rides or asking for them.

My ad gets a response within a day from a man in a beanie touring the south-west in his VW camper. As we drive to Tucson in the early morning, the hills and canyons of central Arizona are green after the winter thaw. Here and there the tumescent branches of the saguaro cactus rise like alien TV aerials, a cinematic shorthand for the American desert.

My driver, Joel, tells me about riding the rails. In the first half of last century, especially during the Depression, catching free train rides was a common way to travel in the US. Hoboes looking for work climbed aboard freight wagons in the dead of night hoping to avoid a beating from a ”bull”, the name given to the men hired to protect the freight.

A former inmate’s memoir published in the ’20s, You Can’t Win offers some first-hand accounts of this world. Its author, Jack Black, rode the rails in all seasons. In one scene, he describes seeing a young man crushed to death when a pile of timber collapses in his wagon.

No one rides the rails out of necessity any more, Joel says. It is mostly college graduates in search of adventure. ”It’s gutter punk,” he says. ”What a trust-fund kid might do to get his kicks.”

I stay a couple of nights in Tucson. The days are getting hot and in the historic Hotel Congress I sip whiskey sours and read ’30s newspaper articles about John Dillinger, the bank robber and public enemy No. 1 who was arrested here with his gang. As in nearby Phoenix, large areas of Tucson are sprawling suburbs devoid of character. Unlike its neighbour, Tucson makes up for this with a well-preserved downtown, which mixes Spanish-style adobe mansions with art deco Americana.

On my last day here, I wait at a petrol station for a ride along the final stretch – 110 kilometres south to Mexico. A minivan turns up, on the way to the border. The driver wants cash, then crams me in the back beside an old Mexican man with no teeth, sucking on dried apricots. Half an hour later the sky darkens. Streaks of rain bounce violently off the bitumen as I try to recall the Spanish for ”please eat with your mouth shut”.

Many commentators blame the media for the decline in popularity of hitchhiking. The depiction of the psychotic loner, either at the box office or in the news, has struck a chord in the public imagination. Add these fears to an increasingly atomised society, where people feel estranged from one another, and you are left with the impression that hitchhiking is a thing of the past.

These armchair obituaries annoy Ingram, who still hitches from his home in Chino Valley, Arizona. He says his golden age for hitching rides was the ’60s, when his US Marines uniform was an ”open ticket for the road”. But he disputes the idea it has become so much harder, or defunct, as a mode of travel.

”It’s always been hard to get a ride and it’s always been easy,” says Ingram, who once got stuck in Barstow for four days waiting for a lift. ”It’s not the time of year or the decade, it’s the getting out there.”

This story was first published in the travel section of the Sydney Morning Herald on Sept 11, 2010


forgotten america

At the heart of Nevada, in an ascetic wilderness of bald mountain summits and arid desert is the old silver mining town of Austin. If you came this way a century ago you’d have hit a 10,000-strong wild west boom town, thick with profiteers drunk on their success and the libations served up at the International bar. But those days have long since vanished into memory.

It is late when I get in to town, and I need a drink. The last five hours of empty desert along Route 50, America’s so-called “loneliest road,” have left me a little spooked. At one point I stopped to look up at the night sky but was back in the car in no time, intimidated by the intense festival of stars overhead and the vast nothingness pressing around me.

As I pull over I see the lights on in the International, and the door swung open to the warm summer night. The bar was the first building to go up in Austin. It was carried brick by brick from Virginia City 160 miles west and reassembled a year after the discovery of silver in 1862, and three years before the first church.

Victor is an acolyte of that old world. He is not American, but a wild-eyed, white-haired Serb who came to the US in the sixties and over the years has retreated further into the interior of the country, and further into his own Wild West fantasies.

He runs the International, a mostly solitary vocation since the population has shrunk to just 350.

Like all true believers Victor wears his faith like a badge of honour. When I walk in to the empty bar he’s watching a cowboy film on a TV in the corner. On the wall opposite hangs a garish portrait of a red-haired woman reclining on a divan. “A hooker I knew in Carson City. A fine lady,” he tells me with no irony, in a voice still strongly Slavic but tinged with a thick cowboy drawl.

“Ye git to have a gun in this town. I seen shootouts in the street. Folks still settle things the old way here,” he says, a smile on his wizened old face, glad to see he is shocking me.

I’m shocked but not surprised.

At this moment in history the USA is surely the most talked about culture on the planet. Yet for all the glare of attention focused on it from outside and inside the country, there are still parts of this vast land that remain obscured in shadow.

The last three weeks I have spent crossing the country, tracking these last outposts of a forgotten America.

Some 1,000 miles east of Austin in the Badlands of South Dakota is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It is a scar on the conscious of America every bit as searing as Hurricane Katrina, and gives the lie to Victor’s romantic delusions of the old west.

It’s population of 30,000 – mostly Native Americans or their descendants from the Sioux tribe – are one of the most deprived communities in the western world.

Unemployment hovers around 80 per cent and life expectancy is among the shortest for any group in the western hemisphere — just 47 for men, early 50s for women. In the seventies the murder rate was nearly nine times higher than Detroit, then considered the US murder capital.

Driving south from Interstate-90 through the weird baked earth mounds of the Badlands National Park I pass the ironically named town of Scenic, just a few clapboard houses and a one-pump gas station with cattle skulls lined across its façade.

Weather battered caravans litter the route and in Pine Ridge town itself an overweight Sioux is selling Indian souvenirs outside Yellow Bird’s Store. On the walls inside the store next to the toy cowboy guns a sign warns expectant mothers of the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

At the centre of the reservation is Wounded Knee, the site of an 1890 massacre by the US cavalry of over 300 Sioux men, women and children. By the time of the massacre the Sioux were a broken people. To find the last footnote in the story of Sioux resistance you must follow the I-90 west a few hundred miles to where it meets the Little Bighorn River.

It was here on the undulating prairie of southern Montana in 1876 that the Sioux leader Crazy Horse defeated the forces of General Custer, a pioneer whose thirst for gold led him to prospect illegally on Indian land. He was made to rue his greed and at Custer’s Last Stand the general and every one of his troops was killed.

Before Little Bighorn the I-90 passes through Wyoming. It is the least populace US state, half a million people living in an area 100,000 square miles in size. Under sagging clouds I drive past miles of emptiness with only the radio for company. The country and western tunes of the Buffalo County radio station greet me like conspiratorial drinking buddies, “God is great, beer is good, people are crazy,” one song sighs wearily.

The wilderness is suddenly broken by an eerie sight. East of the road a trailer park lies abandoned on a ridge. A tornado must have come through, because the tops of the trailers have been ripped off like sardine tins, and flipped over cars lie rusting in a field.

I stop for fuel in the town of Moorcroft. A coal train moves slowly on the tracks opposite the gas station. Wyoming is the biggest provider of coal in the country. The freight train is hundreds of meters long and the coal in the wagons has been patted down to a perfect horizontal.

In the station forecourt a pickup pulls away, the baseball-capped driver drawing on a cigarette through a ragged beard. On his license plates it reads: 2CRZY.

I find myself talking to Vern (his name is written on his cap in case you forget). He’s from Montana but on his way to central Nevada (near Austin as it turns out). He’s on the scent of gold. There’s not much of the shiny stuff left in the US these days but Vern isn’t too bothered. He’s contracted by a Canadian company that owns the deeds and sends him to drill wherever it thinks propitious. “If I hit a seam or hit diddly-squat, it’s all the same to me. I git paid whatever,” he says with a grin.

After long enough on the road the silent highways of the American heartland lure you into a trance. Every day concerns get forgotten and in a kind of road trip-soma you wonder dreamingly what day it might be, and whether life should ever be more complicated than finding gas, food and a place to lay your head.

It’s in this frame of mind I find myself as I drive through Minnesota near the end of my loop through the heart of America. I’ve been in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Nevada and Utah and I don’t want it to end.

The spell is broken by the need for gas. I pull off the I-90, which feels by now like an old friend, and follow a sign away from the highway to a gas station sitting alone in the cornfields. The single gas pump is manned by an old man called Rich. “There used to be a town surrounding this station. A church, school, a bunch of farms,” he says. What happened to it?

He gives a vague wave of the hand to denote progress; the promise of a better life; the lure of the bright lights — all those things that have seen agricultural communities around the world drained of their populations.

“I live in the town but I have to work on the prairie,” he adds. “I can’t do without it.”

I pay for the gas and leave. I heard once that anyone can love the mountains or the sea but that it takes a real soul to love the prairie. In the rear view mirror Rich is standing by the pump, a small outline against the huge expanse of land and sky, and then he is gone.

A version of this story was published in the Melbourne newspaper The Age on October 24, 2009